Old Red Eyes Is Back

oliver_reed02-e1336506186501Alan’s always been one of the good guys.

I say Alan—that’s not his real name.  For all the trouble he’s caused, it wouldn’t do to mention it here.

One of the good guys—that’s what he says.  And bollocks to anyone – any landlord, copper, or ex-wife – who claims different.

I first met him when I was working in the pub.  A craggy old sod, with wild, blistered eyes.  He carried himself like Oliver Reed—you’d ask him a question, and he’d leave one of those heavy, too-long pauses.  He’d stare right into you… and then peel into his big, dangerous laugh.  Just as your arse was going 5p, 10p.

The man’s a menace.  Compelling, but a menace.  Being around him always reminded me of that Chinese curse—may all your days be interesting.  And Alan, if nothing else, was interesting.  Belligerently so.

He was a serious musician in his day—a fixture on the R&B scene in London, around the time of Clapton and Hendrix.  He’s still got the stories, and the glories, but they’ve all been whittled down by the man he let himself become.  He’s ruined so much, and so many, that no one cares about the old days anymore; about who Alan was, or the things he’s done.

Most people keep a safe distance.  For the few who’ve dared to stick around, what he delivers into their lives – consistently, and without prejudice – is raw, bloody chaos.

Forest, meet Alan.  Alan, meet Forest.

Nottingham Forest—we’ve always been one of the good guys.

But take off those red-tinted glasses, for just a moment.  Try and see us through the eyes of someone else.  Someone who doesn’t need to care.

What exactly are we, these days?

We’re interesting—there’s no denying that.  Interesting, in the Chinese way.

But what else?

In football, as in life, there’s what you’ve always hoped you are, and there’s what everyone else thinks you are.  And somewhere in-between (probably nearer their end than yours) there’s the truth.

So what’s the truth of Forest, in 2016?

Take Alan:  in his mind, it’s 1968 forever.  Fifty years on, he looks into a mirror, and sees what he’s always seen—the rough-and-tumble warrior poet.  A man of humour, heart, and music.

Everyone else just think he’s an arsehole.

Over the past five, ten, fifteen years, Forest have turned into that one friend we’ve all got: the one you break down into all their little pieces, every now again, wondering why it is you’re even mates.

The one you’d run a mile from, if you met them for the first time today.

It’s not about the things they do; rather, it’s about who they are, at their core.  You know that it must have been good, once—you just can’t remember how, or when, or why.

Nowadays, when I tell people I’m a Forest fan, they wince.  Genuinely—they wince: as if they’ve heard that I’ve just been diddled in a Ponzi scheme.  Yet it didn’t used to be that way.  Once, being a Forest fan meant something completely different, and it got a different response too.  And as bad as things got, I always assumed that this wider view was rock-solid; that who we were would forgive what we did, forever.  That the marrow of the club – what it was, down in its guts – would always stay the same.  That we’d always mean something good to people (outside of Derby, at least).

The Forest I’d maintained in my own mind – and the one I’ve always assumed the rest of the world could see – was the Forest of heroes.  Charming, and romantic.  Kooky.  Fundamentally, one of the good guys.  But then times goes by, and you open your ears, and you start to ask around.

And you realise that in everyone else’s eyes, they’re just a mess.

Other people don’t see the heroes anymore, or the romance.  No: to them, we’re George Boyd’s eye test.  We’re a never-ending transfer embargo; we’re CEOs, resigning five months into the job; we’re Billy Davies, filming journalists; we’re disbarred lawyers, pouring dubious advice into the ear of a millionaire man-child; we’re six managers, in four years; we’re one winding-up petition after the next.

As recently as Monday; we’re the club who don’t even know when a player’s still under contract.

No honour there, and no romance—no loveable kookiness.  Just a straight-up mess.  A football club locked into a holding pattern of wilful self-harm, tripping itself up time and time again.

We’re a hard club to like, these days.  Let alone love.

We played QPR last week: another team I’d eternalised as one of the good guys.  Think QPR, and it summons up decades of mad-arse mavericks – from Bowles, to Dichio, to Taarabt – all wearing those funky shirts.  Their fans, like Glen Matlock, Michael Crawford, Andrew Ridgeley, and even Eddie from Bottom; life’s runners-up, but each one a hero.  A club you could set your watch by, all through the 90s—year on year, it was always some configuration of Rufus Brevett, Kevin Gallen, Alan McDonald and Karl Ready.  There was a pleasing kind of durability to them—something you could hang your hat on.

lesThe wife even likes them, just because their name tickles her.  “I bet it stands for Quite Poor Results,” she said, after the 5-0 in 2011.  She looked completely delighted with herself.

But this wasn’t match befitting a pair good guys.  Rather, it was spectacularly grim—an ugly game that summed up what both clubs are these days.  It was a vision of mediocrity—13,000 empty seats, and a squall of fine rain, slanting across the floodlights.  A crisp packet dancing on to the pitch; Chris O’Grady, heading lofted balls on to nowhere.

All along the front row of the upper Trent End, there were chins resting on folded arms; heavy sighs and wide yawns, spanning from left to right.  The old man a few seats down was farting over and over again, as if just to feel something.

How did it come to this?  Or rather—when did it come to this?

It was a strange, strange night.  Nobody – from the players, to the fans – seemed to want to be there.  It was the tyranny of habit that brought us all together; that, and nothing more.  It wasn’t a bad performance, per se; just a shitty game, and a dolorous glimpse of the empty place that both teams – in their persistent, grinding ignorance – have finally arrived at.  It was ninety minutes that said nothing, taught nothing, and added nothing.  Just two old boys, each one a card-carrying member of the good guys club, taking lazy swings at each other.  Toiling in the wake of everything they ever thought they were, and what they thought they’d always be—stuck in a moment of their own devising, with no real sense of how to leave.

No good guys, that night, and no heroes.  Just a pair of lost souls.

But it doesn’t need to stay that way.

We could still be one of the good guys.  We could be heroes, again: a football club with texture, and colour, and personality, but on brand new terms.  A team with new stories, and new glories—one that makes its own future, rather than glaring forever backwards at its past.

How?  By finally taking ownership of all the mistakes; by looking honestly at what we are, and how we got here.  It’s a simple answer, but a big one, and it’ll take the kind of bravery, humility, and intelligence that we haven’t seen from Forest in years.

It’s not about getting back to the top, anymore: it’s been seventeen years, and that ship has long since sailed.  It’s about getting there, full stop, and starting again.  Being one of the good guys wasn’t ever conditioned by success: simply, it’s about how you carry yourself.  It’s about doing things the right way.

As Clough once said—it’s about making friends.

Moving forwards post-embargo (whenever that is) there’s what I hope we’ll do, and what I think we’ll do.  And there’s the rub, because they’re still whole worlds apart.  I guess we’ll see.

I hadn’t seen Alan for months.  I bumped into him a couple of days ago, on my way to work, and I could see from a ways off that he looked good.  He was walking differently—he seemed a little taller—and I could see in his complexion that he hadn’t been drinking.

Or he’d been drinking less, at any rate.

I told him it was good to see him.  We swapped a few stories, shared a few laughs, and he said – as he always does – that he missed me at the pub.  I told him he looked good, and hoped he’d fill in the blanks.

“You’ve got to try, haven’t you?”  Even his voice sounded a little lighter.  “Time for a change, I think.”

That big, dangerous laugh—attached to a big, proper smile.  One that I hadn’t seen before.

He’s one of the good guys, is Alan.

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